grumpy about school lunches

I complain a lot about sending lunch to school with Jesse. Next year I have to start doing it with Nick, and I’ll no doubt complain twice as much. I can’t spare myself this hassle by doing hot lunches through school lunch programs, for two reasons. One, Jesse’s got the whole food allergy thing going on (eggs). Two, school lunches kind of suck, and my kids are pretty spoiled and picky eaters. Not picky like they have limited palates (except Nick is struggling with veggies), but picky like they know that a lot of food sucks and fresh homemade is almost always better.

So even if Jesse didn’t have a food allergy, I’d rather pack her lunch and have her actually eat it, than have her sit staring glumly at her school offering and having to choose either to choke that shit down or to be hungry for the next 3.5 hours. That’s why Jesse gets homemade. She’s off the tacos I used to have to send (homemade tortilla cooked in the morning on a cast iron skillet, BAM). Now she’s on to pork barbecue sandwiches. Every few weeks I boil up a pork shoulder with a bunch of herbs and vege until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender, and I shred and freeze it. I drop a frozen lump into a little container each day and it’s defrosted by lunchtime. I also bake homemade hamburger buns and freeze them. Wrap one in aluminum and it’s defrosted by lunch. A separate little container of barbecue sauce, and usually a side of canned peaches, and lunch is a wrap. Trader Joe is Jesse’s peach brand, and not the little snack cups with extra sugar for kids. She likes the fancy ones that come in halves in a jar and cost four times as much. I can’t really complain about it, because she’s right — they taste better. Or sometimes I’ll cut up some melon or a mango, or if they’re available she loves a handful of cherries. If I’m in an extravagant mood, I bake cupcakes and freeze them, so I can drop one of those in her lunch box too. It takes me a good 15 minutes to put her lunch together, and some mornings it feels like a lot of time that I could be spending in better ways, like lolling on the sofa, checking the weather on my iPhone as I mainline a cup of coffee.

I swear I’m not a food over-achiever. It’s just that I’ve had to pore over so many labels to look for eggs in ingredient lists. After you’ve read a thousand labels on packaged foods, you sort of lose your taste for them. The ingredient lists are usually so long, and most of the items aren’t things I comprehend. What exactly is hydroxylated soy lecithin, or sodium stearoyl lactylate, or calcium propionate, or azodicarbonamide? How do I determine if they’re derived from a chicken egg? Why do they have to be conjoined in bread? Maybe it’s all as innocent as dihydrogen monoxide, but I don’t really want to spend the time finding out. Better to just bake my own bread (flour, salt, yeast, water, sometimes sugar and butter). No mystery in that, unless you want me to wax eloquent about the mystery of how yeasty FARTS can make a bit of flour and salt into such a miraculously tasty and addictive simple carb. (I love that I feed my kids yeast farts. If I use honey, I can say with a lot of pride that I’m feeding them yeast farts and bee barf. All natural.)

I may get grumpy about doing lunch for the kids, but I shouldn’t. I’m grateful that I can afford to make them lunches out of the foods they choose and enjoy, that I have the time to do it, that I’m pulled together enough to do it. Not everyone has these luxuries.

The front office ladies at Jesse’s elementary school have a reputation for being pretty grumpy. A lot of people find them off-putting, stern and even rude. I admit I found them to be aloof and sometimes odd at first, but I’m not one to judge someone else’s grumpy. These women work in an open space through which every human entering and leaving that school building must pass. They also deal with kids ranging in age from 4 to 10.  It cannot be pleasant.

Over the years, I’ve hovered enough to see through the stern facade and observe the abiding kindness they feel for the kids who come through their work space. Once in a  while, I’ve caught pseudonymous Linda feeding kids in the morning. She sits them down near her desk and pulls something out of her drawer. She’s nonchalant, low-key, dry. She would never want a child to feel ashamed of this situation. She’s told me in rare moments of candor that some kids come to school hungry, having eaten nothing for breakfast, and sometimes nothing since their (free) school lunch the day before. There’s no knowing if it’s poverty or neglect. Doesn’t matter. Linda takes care of it, best she can. Her simple kindness breaks my heart, because she takes no pride in it (just the solace of knowing a child is less hungry) and because I wish there were no need of it.

It’s hard to accept that hungry children exist in my neighborhood, in this first-world nation. I can’t think about it too much, else I’d be crying all the time, as I am now. As the school year winds down, I find myself asking what becomes of these children during the summer, when there’s no Linda to look out for them, no one to see their hunger and answer it. And what the hell am I doing about it? Nothing, of course. Shedding tears and little else.

Ten years ago, I would have been filled with a hopeless rage in the face of this, mostly directed at myself and fueled by a stream of negative emotions — self-loathing, disappointment, shame, responsibility. Because everything is my fault. I still have that range of feelings, but I’m less hopeless about it all. Years of therapy with Jesse, who shares these tendencies, have helped. Rationally, I know it’s not my fault, and I know I can’t fix everything, and it would be pathetic indeed if I let my hopelessness stop me from doing one little useful thing. So I’ll try to do that, just a little useful thing for a hungry kid here and there as we wind through summer, just like Linda. I’ll probably be grumpy about it, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

3 thoughts on “grumpy about school lunches

  1. Wow, here I thought we were just talking about your lunches, and I was going to suggest that you put togerher a list of ideas with your kids, things they like and aren’t too much work. But you’ve gone beyond that by about 100x. When it comes to other peoples’ kids, kids who don’t have food over the summer…I’m not sure what to do. Maybe call the local food bank and see if there are programs that help, or ask in the office at school? There may be programs, and maybe they could use some help with outreach…

    • You’re right. I know there are options out there, including summer “school lunch” programs. It’s a bit late in the school year (1 week left) to do much about it now, at least for me. I think the best I can do, with my own first-world problems to deal with, is put it on my bucket list for the next couple years. I also have been meaning to get involved with a meals on wheels program like you, but around here there seem to be at least a dozen programs and I haven’t been able to sort out where to go. I’m either overwhelmed or making excuses. You choose.

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